Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
2nd Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3. 1-12: Crying out loud for justice
Begin by using the Study Guide Method as outlined
Are there any ‘prophetic voices’ in the world today? Who are they and what are they speaking about? Would you go out of your way to listen to any of them? If so, which? Have you ever heard a speaker with a radical message? Did it change your life?
Reflection on the text
John the Baptist appears 400 years after the last of the earlier Jewish prophets. Like them, he speaks out when society has lost its moral compass – its focus on God’s purpose for the nation.
Matthew makes connections: John, foretold by Isaiah (v3) , proclaims the same message as Jesus – the kingdom of heaven has arrived (v2). God’s delivering presence is here. The call to repent, refocus and redirect one’s life to the reign of God was obviously attractive. Hundreds of people walked miles into the desert to hear him. Many were baptised in the Jordan before taking the steep road home.
John spoke from the edge of society (v1); his lifestyle and appearance (v4) set him apart from the formal religious and political structures. In a nation under foreign rule where King and High Priest were puppets of the Romans, John had a large and committed following (v 5, 6).
Pharisees and Sadducees are lumped together by Matthew (v7) though they were very different parties, suggesting that all institutional Jewish religion was a problem from which a separation was inevitable. By limiting Judaism to the descendents of Abraham (v9) they forgot he was to be father of many nations and theirs was to be a light and blessing to the Gentiles. Embracing non-Jews as equals was a vital part of the reign of God for the emerging Christian communities.
The ministries of John and Jesus have many similarities, proclaiming the reign of God as an immediate possibility, and their prime task, working with and through committed followers. The Christian communities Matthew writes for, living within and alongside the Roman state and Jewish religion, are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
(See also "More Background Information")
- What prophetic voices are challenging you as a faith community today?
- In what ways are you being led away from your comfort zone and out into ‘the desert’ to find a fresh perspective?
- Can you agree as a group on one topic, of prime concern to you all, that has a kingdom of God focus? Do you have a sense of God calling you to some collective action that would be baptised by the Spirit? What would it mean for you to become a prophetic community?
This is a big subject and you are unlikely to come to an immediate conclusion in the space of one meeting. So pray for guidance. Light candles to represent each of your concerns. Ask God to direct your thoughts and make space to listen. The desert can be a silent, lonely, fearful and dangerous place where insecurity has to be faced, so offer your concerns for what has to be left behind as well as your hopes for the future.
More background information
- John the Baptist appears after a long period in which no one had spoken God’s prophetic word. So it is important to set this in its historic context. For most of the 2000 year period of Jewish history covered by the Old Testament, God raised up a sequence of leaders of his chosen people who would maintain it as His kingdom. However, in later times individual rulers violated the moral compass that had been given to the nation.
The founding fathers were the Patriarchs: Abraham, Joseph and Moses (pre 1400BC); Judges: Joshua, Sampson and Eli (1400-1020BC); Kings: David and Solomon (1020-926BC); and Prophets: Elijah (c860BC), Jonah and Isaiah (c750BC), Jeremiah (c620BC) Ezekiel (c580BC) and Zechariah (c520BC). Their position changed over 15 centuries as society evolved from nomadic and tribal to a settled people forming nations. We still see this variety today: nomadic tribes, kingdoms, secular nations; in each, the perspective of their gods is spoken out from different positions: the divine King (Bhutan), Judges (Iran or Afghanistan), and Prophets (religious leaders in secular states)
The Bible as we generally know it has an enormous gap between the death of Malachi, the last prophet (c 425 BC), and John the Baptist, about AD 25. There had been three distinct phases in the life of the nation: 150 years of Greek rule following Alexander the Great, 100 years of self-rule under Hasmonean Kings following the Maccabean uprising in 165 BC, and 50 years under the Romans from 62BC. The two books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha record the Revolt in which the Greek (Seleucid) rule was overturned – a revolt that started as a result of the Greek king Antiochus trying to suppress public observance of Jewish laws.
Throughout history, God has raised up prophets when Jewish society required a reminder of his values. John the Baptist appears when Israel is being ruled by a Roman governor, Quirinius, a puppet King, Herod, and a religious leadership that had sold out to the invader.
- John fulfils Isaiah’s prediction of the herald preparing the ground for the coming One. His reference to Isaiah 40 v 3 ‘make his paths straight’ refers to justice that sets free those who have become separated from God’s reign. God is coming to deliver and judge.
- ‘Kingdom of heaven’ in Matthew is equivalent to ‘kingdom of God’ in Mark and Luke, reflecting the Jewish discipline of not using directly the holy name of God. ‘Kingdom’ has for us connotations of hierarchy and abuse or misuse of power associated with many rulers. Some have suggested that ‘kin-dom of God’ better reflects the vision of a society of radical equality that Jesus let loose among his followers. We use the expression ‘the Jesus Society’ to sum it up – that is, how society would be were Jesus’ way of life to be implemented and lived out.
- John calls on the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance', meaning to do justice that is in line with God’s will.